Are We Consumers, Taxpayers, or Citizens?

From time to time, thoughtful people reflect on whether there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Introspection is important for ourselves and our relationships with family, friends, and work colleagues. It is important for the health of our democracy to also occasionally consider how we see ourselves in our relationship with our elected representatives and how they see us. Are we consumers, taxpayers, or citizens?

Are we consumers?  Consumer capitalism developed over many years and became the bulwark of our economic system by the 1920s. The prosperity of our nation became dependent on stuff being made and services being provided for us to buy. We, in turn, were paid for making all the stuff and providing all the services. It was a nice, symbiotic circle. We were in trouble when things stopped being made, or became too expensive, or when we stopped buying. That’s what happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008-’09. Our leaders understand. That is why after the tragedy of 9-11, the first advice President Bush had for Americans yearning to demonstrate resilience was to take a trip to Disney World and to go shopping.

When our buying stuff became an economic imperative and patriotic duty, then it is unsurprising that some of our leaders began to think of us as nothing more than consumers. We consume Corn Flakes and health care. We consume I-Phones and education. Everything is a commodity and so government exists only to provide things to be consumed that private capitalists don’t or won’t. Our leaders, therefore, promote themselves as providers and we look at ourselves simply as consumers of what they have on offer. We complain only when price does not match quality.

Consumers, Taxpayers, or Citizens?

(Image: UGA Career Centre)

Are we taxpayers? American Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are what we pay for living in a civilized society.” I don’t much like paying taxes but I get his point. I pay for things from which I benefit and I benefit from living in a society in which there are assumed and enforced modes of behaviour. For example, I can go to a restaurant knowing the food is safe and the kitchen has been inspected and my card or currency will be accepted. I have never left a restaurant without paying. After all,  I benefitted from the meal and service and all the government regulations behind the scenes. In the same way, I believe that I benefit from living in society in which people are educated and healthy and so I may grumble from time to time but I pay my taxes that support public education and health care even though I don’t have a child in school and my last operation was when I had my tonsils out at age 4. I benefit so I pay.

In his victory speech after winning the leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer said, “We are and always will be the party of prosperity not envy, the party that always represents taxpayers not connected Ottawa insiders.” With respect to a recent controversy he said, “As prime minister, I would have fought against this payout in court and made absolutely clear that taxpayers won’t be rewarding an admitted terrorist.” Are they mistakes, sloppy syntax, or a confession as to how Mr. Scheer sees us? Is that all we are to him: taxpayers? Are we not more than that? This has nothing to do with party, but perspective.

Are we citizens? Anyone can be a consumer because anyone can wander into a market and buy stuff. Anyone can be a taxpayer because anybody can be made to pay for stuff. Citizenship is more than both. It is a more noble concept. It derives from ideas born in ancient Greece. Citizenship suggests membership in something akin to belonging to a club or even, at its best, a family. It’s why we carry a membership card – a passport – sing the anthem, take pride in the flag, and celebrate our founding each July. Some of us are born into the family and others, after passing the muster of the gate keepers’ requirements, can join and become equal members. We can leave and live elswhere. In this way, citizenship is not about birth and blood but choice.

As with clubs and families, citizenship involves rights and responsibilities. The American Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms spell them out. They suggest that we not cherry pick but, as citizens, respect and live according to them all. Americans, for instance can’t stomp on the first amendment in their advocacy of the second. The American and Canadian Supreme Courts exist to remind us of that fact even if, occasionally, we and our governments are infuriated by their decisions. Even when we disagree, in fact, especially when we disagree, citizenship means that we are in this together with responsibilities to and for each other.

Buying stuff and paying taxes are only slivers of what it means to be a citizen. Rallying us as consumers and calling us taxpayers cheapens the concept of citizenship. It tears at the fabric of who we are and places in jeopardy the core of our democracy.

It matters whether we see ourselves as visitors to a mall, the government’s ATM machine, or members of a national family. Our founders believed it was important and created a system based on our considering ourselves, and our leaders treating us, as citizens. Perhaps we should reflect the wisdom of those founders whether Sir John A. Macdonald or Thomas Jefferson and whether there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us by listening carefully to how those who lead or aspire to lead, speak of us. Let’s be aware of how others within our national family speak of themselves and the rest of us. If among the greatest gifts the ages have bestowed upon us is the concept of citizenship, then let us respect and protect it. I would rather live in a country than a mall.

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4 thoughts on “Are We Consumers, Taxpayers, or Citizens?

  1. I enjoy your reflections, John. You may be interested in reading The Army of Marketeers by Ursula Franklin. It warns against using the language of the oppressors. I shared it widely after Harris tried to use corporate-speak to rename school board offices “corporate headquarters.”

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  2. Also among the greatest gifts is freedom and I believe that freedom is directly correlated to citizenship, not only in its creation (it must be different in different places), but in its protection and perpetuation. Paying taxes or consuming have little to do with freedom. Let’s remind our politicians.

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